Thinking of showing at an art fair? Here’s some advice!

Beacon Gallery has now shown at a couple of art fairs, including during Miami’s Art Week and at SPRING/BREAK Art Show New York. It feels like an opportune moment to share a bit of advice about what it’s like to apply for and show at an art fair.

Greetings from SPRING/BREAK Art Show NYC 2020! Beacon Gallery featured work by Caron Tabb at the show.

Finding an art fair

My first recommendation for a gallery or artist looking for an art fair is to do your homework.

That means, if at all possible, visit the art fair a year prior to your intended showing. Make sure that you like the vibe. Check that the galleries and artists showing there, as well as the work is the appropriate style and calibre for your work.

There’s nothing worse than putting in the time and money to prepping for a fair and realizing that the fair isn’t “right” for you.

Speak to galleries showing at the fair if you can – you can find someone friendly and ask them how everything is going. Is there good foot traffic? Has it been well-organized? What do they like/not like? Any sales?

And, regarding sales, most organized fairs keep sales numbers from one year to the next – use those numbers to help you as well: are people actually buying?

Finally, look at the layout? Are there dead corners? Do your best to ensure the fair is creating traffic patterns where all the work gets seen. Dead corners can mean lost time and money and disappointing results.

If, on the other hand, the vibe and the facts all point towards a yes, then it’s time to look into how to apply!

The Application

How does one even get into an art fair?

First there’s an application process… similar to applying for almost anything else, the selection committee wants to know your pedigree and see what else you’ve been doing.

The key for any application is the deadline – make sure you don’t miss it.

As such, back plan so that you’re prepared. You must put together your programming for the fair at the time of the application, meaning that decisions are made about artists being shown months in advance.

An application fee (non-refundable) plus (sometimes/usually) a multi-thousand dollar deposit (refundable) is also required. This definitely cuts down on applying to multiple fairs at the same time, as the financial burden can be too great.

Sometimes a fair will invite you to apply – be wary, as this often means that either they don’t have enough applicants or not enough applicants of the type they are seeking. Ensure that you get what you want in this case: either don’t pay to exhibit, pay a significantly reduced fee, and always ask/ensure that you know what your booth assignment would be. Don’t jump on any invitation blindly.

Art fairs are not cheap…

Budget is a big issue. While one may think that the cost of the booth is “it” for the fair, there will always be additional costs such as:

  • marketing costs (potentially added on by the fair organizers)
  • display costs (for lighting/flooring/walls/paint etc. – also by fair organizers)
  • transportation of artwork (up to you as gallery/artist)
  • transportation of manpower (for anyone working the booth)
  • installation costs (if artists/gallerist not installing themselves)
  • food and lodging costs (for you and anyone assisting, from install, through all fair days and deinstall)

Prepping for a fair

Lots of prep work goes into a fair – in a way, it’s very similar to any other show opening, except for a shorter period of time, and away from the comforts of “home”

An exhibitor manual should be available (ideally) a few months before the fair, giving all the details on shipping of work, hours of the fair, insurance, and any other questions you may have.

Setup at Spectrum/Red Dot Miami 2019 – crates everywhere!

Shipping or transport of work is probably the most expensive and logistically challenging of all the aspects of putting together a show for an art fair.

Installation (and the eventual deinstallation) is another facet to consider. Never forget while installing that in less than a week you will be deinstalling. Be as organized as possible – label the wrapping, note where you put things. Do whatever you can to make deinstall easier on yourself.

There are usually strict rules on what can be drilled into the walls (nails/screws/etc.) and number of holes, painting of walls, etc. Be sure to follow the rules or be ready to remediate or pay at the end of the fair.

Lighting is a big consideration as well, and whatever is included may not be adequate. Don’t neglect lighting.

What to pack?

With an empty slate of sorts, it’s important to know what to bring! This is Beacon Gallery’s room at Aqua Art Miami in 2019, pre-install

Figuring out what to send to a fair is always a tough job… it’s like packing for a trip, but rather than having done it hundreds of times in the past, it may be a first-time experience.

While I’ve only done it a couple of times, here’s my basic list – feel free to comment with additional items/advice/words of wisdom as well!

The artwork: try not to bring too much. Don’t “over-hang” your space.

Artwork by Raquel Fornasaro – Don’t “over-crowd” the artwork

You’ll have figured the artwork out in advance, so this should be the easiest part. You may have to decide whether to crate or soft-pack it, but otherwise, just label the pieces well so you know what’s what. Consider what type of art you’ll want to bring, including pieces of different sizes and price points that may attract a diversity of buyers.

For fairs where no furniture is provided, consider adding 1-2 folding chairs and a folding table. You’ll need a place for collateral (your printed material, laptop, etc.).

Installation box/kit: you’ll need to take some tools with you in order to install, and do note that airlines are gonna give you a hard time… If you’re flying, it’s better to ship them with the art than try to fly with them.

It’s important to pack well and be organized! Label everything.
  • Here’s my current install box packing list (all in a soft tool bag)
  • hammer
  • screwdrivers (electric and manual, flat and Philips head)
  • drill and drill bits
  • chargers for anything electric
  • extension cords/power strips as needed/anticipated
  • nails and screws of all sizes (for hanging)
  • extra wire and d rings (if a piece needs to be wired/re-wired)
  • pencil(s)
  • measuring tape(s)
  • level(s)
  • pliers (perhaps… you never know when they come in handy)
  • Mr. Clean magic eraser
  • blue tape
  • packing tape
  • sharpie
  • scissors
  • box cutter
  • white gloves for handling delicate artwork
  • soft cloth duster
  • I also have a “office box” packing list, that includes items I want at the fair with me. This includes the following:
  • Artist bios
  • Show cards for current show
  • Show cards for past/future shows to promote
  • Business cards
  • guest book for collecting emails
  • chargers for laptop and phone
  • stapler
  • any display items for your table
  • bags/cardboard tubes/plastic for any purchases that need wrapping
  • white gloves for handling artwork
  • whatever you need for processing sales

Surviving the fair itself

It’s hard to manage a fair on one’s own. The days are long and tiring. You talk to a lot of people and there’s nowhere to “hide” or to take a break.

Try to have at least two people managing a booth at any time, so one can assist a client or take a break at any given time while the other is still available. It can be done with one person, but makes for very long and tiring days. Fairs usually run for 8-9 hours per day for 4-5 days or longer.

Having a friend/co-worker to help out is a plus – pictured is artist Jamaal Eversly helping booth sit at Aqua Art Miami in December 2019

Things to bring to an art fair for personal survival:

  • adequate water and food for your own needs
  • clothing that will keep you warm or cool enough (layers to add or take off)
  • something to keep you busy during slow moments
  • immense amounts of patience – before/during/after for all the inevitable issues that will occur. Try to roll with the punches and stay professional. Keep perspective in mind: nothing is life-or-death, and chances are any issues are sheerly the result of too many things happening at once rather than any sort of ill will.

Art Fair Success

Nothing is ever guaranteed, but there are things you can do to help an art fair feel more successful to you/your business.

  • First: identify what success looks like to you. Try not to define it purely in terms of sales, as that may lead to disappointment. If possible, define success as adding X number of people to one’s email list, or some other parameter of your choosing.
  • Invite people – fairs give exhibitors tickets to share with clients. Use those invitations so you know you’ll have people stop by specifically to see your booth!
  • Write a press release – press definitely helps get the word out and makes a fair, even with minimal sales, feel like it was worth the effort.
  • Be inviting – find a way to welcome people to the booth in a non-threatening way, engage in conversation when desired and know when to leave visitors alone when they want to browse.
  • Ask for people to join the mailing list, follow you on instagram, or engage with the gallery in the method of your choosing!
  • Leverage social media!
  • Finally, be sure to follow up on leads you get from the fair – email people back!

Deinstall

Know that usually almost every item that leaves a fair needs a “removal slip” – prepping those in advance can be helpful to swiftly getting your items out to the street.

Desinstall will always be faster than installation, which is encouraging. At the same time, leave enough time to get it done!

Do your best to leave the space in the same condition you found it. Patch holes, don’t leave rubbish behind. Be a good citizen.

Those are my words of wisdom from having worked a couple of art fairs. Comment with advice for readers and other items to pack!

1 comment

  1. Love the specificity and honesty of this blog! I came away realizing it’s a ton of work to show art in an alternative venue.

    Like

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